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TLDR: A student posted my lab assignment as a “project” on Hackster.io and Instructables. His posts hide its origin as a lab assignment, in which a lot of the materials (texts, circuit diagram and similar) were given to the students. If you were a potential employer reading his posts,

  • you would not know it was a lab assignment,
  • you would think (falsely) that the author of the posts designed and implemented a major project that involved a significant amount of original work,
  • you would think (falsely) that the author of the posts has a very good understanding of the subject matter and a very good ability to communicate his work in writing.

Should I say something to the student (who is not my student anymore)? If so, what? Should I take any further actions?

As an educator, I feel like it is my responsibility to help my students understand when they are misrepresenting their work, and/or failing to meet professional/academic standards and legal requirements with respect to attribution and copyright. I am not sure how to communicate this lesson without placing the student on the defensive.


A student posted my lab assignment as a “project” on Hackster.io and Instructables

Last semester, I taught a graduate-level embedded systems course, for which I developed some new lab materials.

One lab assignment in particular was meant to make sure that all students gained some experience with putting together a project composed of multiple parts. For this lab exercise, I gave students a pre-constructed circuit on a breadboard, and a code base including functions for using each of the parts on this circuit. The students only had to implement the control flow of the program, using the functions I gave them.

I just noticed that one of my students has posted this lab assignment as a "project" on Hackster.io and Instructables. His post is a near-verbatim copy of the written material I gave to students, including:

  • A description of the hypothetical scenario I presented to motivate the lab:

    You have just been hired at a company that does X. You have been tasked with...

    He just changed it to read:

    We have just been hired...

  • A lot of background reading material which I and my TAs wrote, including original graphics, explaining how each of the parts used in the lab work.

  • Fritzing diagram of the circuit (which I constructed).
  • Tutorial-style instructions for the tasks involved.

In total, the student posted ≈2250 words of written material, and some images, all taken from my lab instructions.

The student made minor changes to hide its origin as a class assignment

The changes he made were:

  • Some changes to the text that appear to be mainly for the purpose of hiding the origin of the project. For example, where I wrote:

    This lab

    He changed it to:

    This project

  • He omitted the parts where I instructed students to write a unit test for each subsystem, instructions on what was provided already and what new code students were expected to write and submit, and how they were going to be graded.

  • He added his own “main” source file, i.e. the thing he had to submit to me.

I hold the copyright to the materials he posted

All of my lab materials for the course, including those written materials, are in a public repository on Bitbucket.

Students were supposed to “fork” the repository in order to complete the lab, and were required to keep their fork private for the duration of the course. I didn't give any additional instructions regarding posting lab materials online.

The code in the repository is under an open source license that allows students to redistribute the code. (He didn’t actually post any of my code, though.)

The text material and graphics, which he did post, are not; I have not licensed those under any copyright licenses (like Creative Commons) that enable redistribution.

My university/school/department has no formal policy on posting coursework online. I didn’t say anything specific in the syllabus or give any other explicit instructions (besides for what I just noted above) about students posting course materials online.

The source (my repository of lab materials) is not indexed by Google, so the student’s posts appear to be original material

Although my lab repository containing the material is public, Google doesn’t index its contents. So if you Google some of the text in these posts, it appears to be original.

The only attribution is that the student mentioned me as having “inspired” the project

On Hackster.io, there is an “Additional Contributors” field, in which he wrote:

Designing the lab that inspired this project by ff524

Question: How should I address this?

Should I say something to the student (who is not my student anymore)? If so, what? Should I take any further actions?

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    Are they still a student at your establishment? – EnergyNumbers Aug 6 '15 at 9:08
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    IANAL, but I imagine this is what DMCA takedown requests are for. – Federico Poloni Aug 6 '15 at 12:18
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    @Federico Yes, my concern is how to educate this student (in my role as an educator). I'm not nearly as concerned about protecting my copyright as I am about my student misrepresenting his work in my course. – ff524 Aug 6 '15 at 12:20
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    Is there an honor code that this violates? Seems like it violates any honor code I've heard of. – Todd Wilcox Aug 6 '15 at 19:43
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    If your university/school/department really has no policy on this - and it isn't just that you aren't aware of it - then it is about time they got one. Everywhere I've taught has had policies on this - policies which would make this clearly unacceptable. Indeed, many places prohibit students from redistributing notes they take in lectures, as well, and not just materials actually prepared by instructors. I've had one student post coursework online but that was an essay and the question was a single, unoriginal sentence, so not even subject to copyright. – cfr Aug 7 '15 at 21:54
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It seems to me that there are two orthogonal aspects to this:

  1. Copyright

  2. Attribution

Either of these would in my eyes justify talking to the student and/or to the websites he posted at.

Re 1, you will need to decide by yourself whether you want to stick with a narrow interpretation of your copyright. If you don't explicitly allow dissemination, then the student has no business disseminating your work, period. Slight changes to wording don't make this more ethical or more legal. Of course, you can just let it slide, but I'd argue it would be good if you explained this to the student as a "teaching moment" and required him to take the material down. If he does not comply within a reasonable time frame, I would recommend that you talk to the websites.

Re 2: I find it much more serious that the student does not even properly attribute the work to you. What could be his motivation for doing so? After all, he could just as well put your name prominently on the materials (which would still violate your copyright, which is why I consider these two issues orthogonal to each other). The only motivation that comes to my mind is that he explicitly wanted to pass the work off as his own. Will he put this on his CV as an "example" of his portfolio? He shouldn't do that, and he shouldn't get away with this. Again, I'd recommend that you talk to him and to the website, if he doesn't take the material offline.

In addition, I'd say that this second issue would certainly warrant at least discussing possible disciplinary consequences with him, depending on what possibilities your university offers. This is certainly comparable to straightforward plagiarism - he didn't do it to get a better grade, but quite probably to show off somebody else's work as his in a non-academic context. I'd say that the sanctions your student code spells out for plagiarism would be a good starting point for holding a discussion with this student.

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    There is a 3rd important aspect -- Plagiarism: The student looks better than he is. This fact itself is actually a criminal offence in some countries, AFAIK. – yo' Aug 6 '15 at 10:19
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    @yo' Plagiarism and lack of attribution are two different words for the same thing: taking someone else's work and making it look like your own. – g.rocket Aug 6 '15 at 13:52
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    I like this but with a caveat: the posting of the material on an independent website may be outside the university's jurisdiction to impose disciplinary consequences. Depending on the relevant policies, one might argue that the university can only punish plagiarism that is submitted as coursework. So this emphasizes the point that it is important to research the policy on plagiarism. (Of course the copyright issue remains, either way.) – David Z Aug 6 '15 at 15:25
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    @g.rocket: This doesn't seem to be "lack of attribution" but "false attribution" - much worse obviously. "Lack of attribution" would be "Look everyone, I found this incredibly good paper on the internet". But this seems to be "Everyone look at the excellent paper that I wrote". – gnasher729 Aug 8 '15 at 13:49
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    @gnasher729: "False attribution" usually actually means the reverse -- attributing a claim to a source that does not actually justify the claim. I understand the distinction you're trying to make, but "lack of attribution" seems appropriate here; this is just a particularly egregious case of it. The student is indeed posting their own project, including their own work; but they're obscuring the nature of the project and concealing that most of it is not their own work. – ruakh Aug 8 '15 at 21:15
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In the current discussion there seems to be a somewhat of an agreement that the student maliciously misattributed your work to oversell his own contributions. Based on the information given that seems far from obvious to me (you know, "never attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence"). Yes, it is certainly weird that he uploads your code and design without saying that he only did (small) parts of the entire solution. However, it is entirely possible that the student really did not think about this at the time, especially given that your code is actually open source and redistributable. Your figures are not, and even for your code the student clearly needed to attribute you, but those points are actually quite subtle and it seems entirely possible to me that the students simply is not aware of that.

Question: How should I address this?

Should I say something to the student (who is not my student anymore)? If so, what? Should I take any further actions?

Yes, definitely, but unless there are strong indications to the contrary, I would keep all discussion under the assumption that the student just made a silly mistake and will be willing to fix it.

In the first instance, I would just send the student a mail and tell him that you stumbled over his upload and are dissatisfied with his attribution of your work. Tell him that you expect him to make obvious which parts are your copyright, and which parts are his own work (e.g., via headers in the source files, as customary). If you don't want your images to be part of the upload at all, tell him to remove them entirely.

Should he decide to ignore this request, what you can do next really depends on how important this is to you. Roughly in order of level of escalation, you can either let it go, keep pestering him per mail, talk sternly to him in person, send a mail to the platform and make them take it down, or contact the dean of studies (or whoever is in charge with student ethics in your institution). I would definitely not do the last, but all previous reactions are perfectly suitable.

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    I agree that there is not necessarily malicious intent, especially since this student is from parts of the world with different views regarding plagiarism. My goal here is to educate, not to punish. Can you suggest in more detail how to impress upon him the seriousness of this issue, without putting him on the defensive? – ff524 Aug 6 '15 at 10:17
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    I sent the student an email, complimenting him on his initiative in publicizing his coursework online, explained why his current posts aren't acceptable, and gave him some very specific, detailed guidelines on how to do so properly. His response: "I'll take it down, but [insert lame excuses here for why he believes he didn't actually do anything wrong]. Sorry for accidentally infringing." C'est la vie – ff524 Aug 6 '15 at 23:10
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    @ff524, you might want to get some evidence (a screenshot, or a copy of the webpage) of the student's post before he takes it down. – Joel Reyes Noche Aug 7 '15 at 2:35
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    New update: I found a paper that this student published in a predatory journal when he was an undergrad. It's full of plagiarized content (chunks of text copied verbatim without quotation marks, list of references at the end includes some of the sources but they aren't cited in text). – ff524 Aug 10 '15 at 4:15
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    @ff524 I am quite tolerant, but I must say the situation you described would have made me livid and I would probably have let this shine through in my interaction with the student. In particular, I think I probably would have left off the "complimenting" component of the interaction, I do not think irony works with such people. From your description, it seems he knows that he is wrong and just wants to defuse attention. – Captain Emacs Mar 4 '16 at 10:32
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My answer assumes that you did not attach any kind of license or copyright notice to your repository.


I have a feeling that this student has misunderstood your repo being public for being open source. It would be best to take a deep breath and explain the difference to this student. Not many people realize that a repository without a license defaults to standard copyright law. (i.e. You, the author, reserves all rights.)

So first, add a proper copyright notice to the repository to prevent this from happening again. Then go calmly explain to your student what it means when there is no license in a repository. I guarantee you this was an honest (and actually very common) mistake.

Step back and consider that it's very likely this student thought this was open source material and (I'm assuming) no license displayed detailing how the material could or couldn't be used. It's an open source world for these kids. Without a notice saying the author must be attributed, they likely didn't know any better. You're a teacher, so use the opportunity to teach.

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    Frankly, I am much more concerned about the lack of attribution and misrepresentation of student's contribution vs mine. I don't care that much about the copyright issue, which I understand is more subtle. – ff524 Aug 6 '15 at 23:36
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    Step back and consider that it's very likely this student thought this was open source material and (I'm assuming) no license displayed detailing how the material could or couldn't be used. It's an open source world for these kids. Without a notice saying the author must be attributed, they likely didn't know any better. You're a teacher, so use the opportunity to teach. – RubberDuck Aug 6 '15 at 23:41
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    Well, it could certainly be ok if it was open source, depending on the license @cfr. I also have no idea where everyone has gotten the idea that this is some sort of portfolio piece. Who has ever used an instructable as a portfolio piece. In any case, it's a teaching moment, not something to freak out about. – RubberDuck Aug 7 '15 at 22:05
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    I just meant that it is a mistake to think that open source = do whatever you like. It doesn't. An open source licence grants you specific rights, just like any other licence. – cfr Aug 7 '15 at 22:08
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    Yes, I did read it. I've just read it again. Your answer says: the student probably thought it was OK because it must be open source, as it didn't say otherwise. What the student doesn't realise, that is, is that public does not default to open source. But that conflates open source with do-what-you-like. That is, even if the student did assume that and it was true, it would not follow that the student did nothing illegal. 'It's an open source world...' suggests they'd be fine if everything really was open source. But that just doesn't follow. (However much you sigh about it.) – cfr Aug 7 '15 at 23:11
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It's quite possible that the student enjoyed your project and wants to share it with the world. Perhaps talk to them in person and use phrases such as

I'm glad you enjoyed last semester's project, I noticed you put it online. It's great to see you're sharing knowledge but just note that this is actually plagiarism if you don't cite the work you copied. Could you please cite the work and any future work. I'm happy to let this go today but in future it might make things difficult for you.

Perhaps also point out that he really should have sought your permission.

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    There is so much more than plagiarism going on here. You can't copy >2000 words of written material without permission even if you cite it, for example. – ff524 Aug 6 '15 at 13:12
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    @ff524 - that completely depends on the licence. – Davor Aug 7 '15 at 10:22
  • @Davor That's what a license is: a document that explains what permissions are granted to others, and under what circumstances. If a license permits copying, that is permission. – ff524 Aug 7 '15 at 16:13
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    @Davor: presumably, there is no license, and that means all rights reserved to the author or copyright owner. However, almost everybody is ignorant of copyright law. – Max Aug 7 '15 at 17:06
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    The scandal is not the copying; copyright law is complicated. The scandal is the utter lack of attribution and the clear attempt to hide the origins. This is clearly unsavoury, no matter what. Even many free software licenses make clear that attribution of the original author is to be maintained. – Captain Emacs Mar 4 '16 at 10:36
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There are two possibilities here, if you are concerned about maintaining control over your Intellectual Property. 1) Ask the student to attribute it, or 2) Ask the student to take it down. Personally, I would ask the student to take it down, and if it doesn't happen, I'd ask the university powers-that-be to start sending out take-down notices to the relevant sites.

Without worrying about how to be nice about doing this (which you should certainly try to do, as there's no reason not to), this is educational material that you probably worked hard to develop. You attained an experience level and knowledge base that allowed you to do it. The choice to make it available to the rest of the world at no cost belongs to you, and not to your student, and it carries the risk of devaluing your expertise.

As an aside, our new Academic Honesty policy specifically defined such behavior as academic dishonesty, whether properly attributed or not.

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I recommend you take decisive action. Clarify in your mind who the intellectual property belongs to. Does it belong to you, your employer, your other contributors?

Once this is reasonably clear then take action accordingly. If the material belongs to you and you alone, I don't have much advice. But I do empathize with you.

If the work belongs at least in part to your employer or to other contributors, you might be required by law or by the rules of your institution to do something more specific.

If you do nothing else, start by going to Hackers.IO and Instructables and read their terms of use policies. If you believe your student has violated the terms of use of these sites, then I strongly encourage you to report your concern to them. This is your basic due diligence.

Check with your attorney or another member of faculty that you trust to help figure out what to do next. Not handling this sort of issue carefully could create a bad situation down the line. "How did our labs get into this guy's book? Now he's suing us!? And you knew about this??!! Why didn't you do anything about this back in 2015?" I hope this is not the middle of the night as you are reading this, but, these things can get bad. Just do your due diligence.

As for the student? Not sure. At the very least, he should have asked your permission to share it or adapt your work. His/hers was a bad, bad choice. Unfortunately, not a lot of win/win options that I can think of for dealing with this.

I would say get the sites to take the content down, figure out your due diligence regarding your institution, then deal with the student on whatever terms and using whatever options are left to you.

protected by Alexandros Mar 16 '18 at 21:30

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